Two seniors at Princeton University become obsessed with uncovering the secrets hidden in a mysterious Renaissance book, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, which was first printed in 1499. As they draw closer to the solution, danger begins to surround them. The narrative is framed by the rituals and idiosyncracies of life at Princeton and the friendship between four students.
This book could have really been something. It seems impeccably researched, imparts a wealth of knowledge about the Renaissance in Italy and especially Florence, and makes you want to know more about this period in history. The mystery is interesting and coherent, as are the riddles that get solved. It’s just everything else that is a mess.
First of all, the first 50 pages are dreadful, and it takes the book almost until page 150 to really hit its stride. During the first few pages alone I was tempted several times to put it down for good due to an amateurish writing style, a terrible stylistic choice of using the present tense for much of the narration (to make the present more discernible from the numerous flashbacks I guess), and too much Princeton background and campus life happenings that were just boring. The writing becomes much better the farther one progresses, as does the book in general; maybe it’s a case of two authors’ different styles and ideas taking some time to fit together.
What I disliked immensely was the constant referral to the Renaissance book as a woman that enthralls its readers and holds them in her claws, a vicious temptress with a siren song that can only end in ruin, or in other parts as a destructive affair with a woman not your own. In this same vein, it’s also pitched against the main protagonist’s girlfriend, insofar as he has to decide multiple times between his girlfriend or the book, which reduces the girlfriend to pretty much a prop. This is absolutely terrible because she is the only woman with a reasonably significant role in the story. In general, the tone in regard to sexuality and women is strangely juvenile in a way that I would associate more with teenage boys than seniors at a university. The story also doesn’t shrink back from gore or violence as it does from sexuality. All this was really grating to me.
Ultimately, the book is saved from being subpar only by the mystery being compelling and by the fascinating historical background, and that’s really a pity. The potential was there for it to be a great book about obsession, which really should be the central theme, and the ruinous quest for knowledge it leads to. This angle, however, is never really explored in a believable or captivating way, which, combined with the cookie-cutter characters and the lackluster romance, results in a lack of depth and a certain indifference concerning the characters’ fates.